TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They were saying the exact same thing as the Alabama fans, especially the ones at home screaming at the television.
During the College Football Playoff National Championship, ESPN held its usual corresponding film room, where some prominent head coaches discussed what they were seeing as Alabama squared off against Clemson.
For the record, it featured Steve Addazio (Boston College), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Dave Doeren (NC State), Mike MacIntyre (Colorado), Matt Rhule (Baylor) and Kalani Sitake (BYU). Due to the ACC slant, many obviously wanted to see the Tigers win, but mostly they wanted a good game.
So throughout the broadcast you heard repeated calls of the same thing: “Give the ball to No. 9!”
That’s Bo Scarbrough, of course, and even though Alabama had a new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, it looked more like the kind of Crimson Tide football that had led to its previous national championships.
To be more specific, it was reminiscent of Mark Ingram Jr. grinding out yards against Texas, Trent Richardson churning away until he scored on LSU, Eddie Lacy bulldozing Notre Dame and Derrick Henry wearing defenders down.
Scarbrough ran for 93 yards on 16 carries and had two touchdowns before suffering a fractured leg during the third quarter. It came on the heels of 180 rushing yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns against Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal, to be named the game’s offensive MVP.
“Bo has really come on and played extremely well the last three or four games of the season,” head coach Nick Saban said during his postgame press conference. “He’s certainly been a bell cow for us.
“Because of his size and durability, he makes it difficult when the defense gets worn down a little bit. Not to have him was probably a little bit of a disadvantage for us.”
This isn‘t to suggest that Alabama would have won had Scarbrough not gotten hurt—just like one can’t assume that Texas would have won with a healthy Colt McCoy at the Rose Bowl years ago, the wishful thinking is irrelevant—but it does bode well for Alabama’s future.
Go back to the start of the 2016 season and Alabama had a completely revamped middle to the offense, with a new center, true freshman quarterback and new starting running backs. It still managed to go 14-1 and end up a second away from the national title.
Crimson Tide fans may still be hurting, but they’ll eventually realize that it was a remarkable season.
Now they have an offense needing to replace just a couple of players, and a backfield boasting Damien Harris, Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons, along with adding the top recruit in the nation, Najee Harris.
“Fear” isn’t a word you want to use in college football, but some of Alabama’s opponents should be downright scared to face the Crimson Tide this year.
When Alabama’s been its best under Saban, it’s had a defense nearly impossible to run against, while the balanced offense had running backs leading the way, eating up the clock, chewing away yards and, perhaps most important, helping keep the defense off the field.
With Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, it got away from that to a certain extent, although also due to need. Like Blake Sims, Hurts felt more comfortable going uptempo, so Alabama went uptempo. The offensive line wasn‘t necessarily geared toward a power style of running so the play-calling reflected it.
It’s hard to argue with the results, especially since Alabama won three straight Southeastern Conference titles and a national championship during Kiffin’s time in Tuscaloosa. Moreover, his offenses broke scores of school records despite having three different starting quarterbacks.
Interestingly, Alabama had more rushing yards playing a faster tempo in 2016 than with Heisman Trophy winner Henry in 2015. Specifically, it had 3,675 rushing yards, averaging 5.8 per carry and 245.0 a game this past season, compared to 2,999, 4.7 and 199.9 the previous year.
That also doesn‘t include the jet sweeps that count as shovel passes (the players preferred that over trying to take handoffs at full speed), but the offensive totals ended up being pretty similar.
- 2015: 1,088 plays, 6,406 yards, 5.9 per play, 427.1 per game
- 2016: 1,056 plays, 6,829 yards, 6.5 per play, 455.3 per game
Those numbers just reinforce that Alabama was playing to its strengths while Kiffin was trying to disguise its deficiencies, including the downfield attack and Hurts having trouble connecting with tight end O.J. Howard.
Those are things that are likely to improve with time and timing, and Hurts will work hard to do so. In theory, the more he does the less he’ll need to rely on his legs, and even though he was nearly a 1,000-yard rusher in 2016, that would be a good thing for the Crimson Tide.
Think of it as a logic formula: The ability to attack downfield + the threat of quarterback runs + Alabama’s stable of running backs = nightmare scenario for defenses.
It leaves opposing coaches in a quandary as to where to play the safeties—deep or up closer to the line of scrimmage. The more Hurts can back them up, the better the running game.
Just how Alabama utilizes it, though, will primarily depend on the personnel. Considering some of the incoming offensive linemen, it could have more of a power base—maybe not Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker level, but better than last year. Does it have a tight end who can seal corners? Can Scarbrough stay healthy?
He was nicked up for a part of 2016 and aggravated an injury against Auburn. But consider what Clemson redshirt freshman defensive end Clelin Ferrell told reporters before the national championship:
“You know Alabama. You know those are big, physical guys who can run very well. It’s kind of crazy to see the monster sets that a guy like Scarbrough has had over the last couple games.”
As Ferrell foreshadowed, Clemson brought its “hard hats,” and still gave up 221 rushing yards and 31 points. Alabama also came extremely close to breaking the game open.
For those who plan on watching it again at some point, keep an eye out for three plays in particular:
- An option that Hurts held on the ball instead of giving it to Scarbrough through the left side.
- A short screen pass in which the receiver slipped.
- The late screen that Howard reached up and took away from Harris, the intended receiver.
In all three cases the defense was correctly anticipated, blockers were in place and there was a lot of green ahead of the ball-carrier—reinforcing the notion that Sarkisian called a good game, especially considering he had been on the job for only a week after being promoted from analyst.
Now he’ll get to mold the 2017 offense with a backfield that’ll be the envy of his peers. A balanced attack will again be the goal, and is characteristic of his previous offenses, but Alabama could do a promo mimicking a credit card ad with him saying: “So college football, how would you like the ball shoved down your throat?”
“Whoever’s hot, that’s who’s going to get the ball,” Saban said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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